Don’t underestimate the value of sleep

05.22.14 |

Sleep is one of the cornerstones of optimal health, but its importance is often underestimated.

For many, late nights bleed into early mornings over and over again to the point that a good night’s sleep is nothing but an unachievable dream. A new study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society has brought the importance of sleep back to the top of medical conversation. The study linked a lack of sleep and an overabundance of sleep to memory problem in older women.

In a press release connected to the study, study leader Elizabeth Devore said,

“Our findings suggest that getting an ‘average’ amount of sleep, seven hours per day, may help maintain memory in later life and that clinical interventions based on sleep therapy should be examined for the prevention of [mental] impairment.”

In fact, the study goes as far as to suggest that undersleepers and oversleepers, when compared to women of the same age that got seven to eight hours of sleep each night, were mentally two years older.
These findings are not yet definitive, but they add to an already large body of knowledge that supports the idea that getting the recommended amount of sleep is critical to your health.

The Chief Medical Editor of the Harvard Health Blog, in his analysis of Devore’s sleep study, summarizes some of the key consequences of lost sleep:

“Previous research has linked poor sleep with higher risks of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression. How might sleep affect memory? People who are persistently sleep deprived are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes, and narrowed blood vessels. Each of these can decrease blood flow inside the brain. Brain cells need a lot of oxygen and sugar, so blood flow problems could affect their ability to work properly.”

Importance of sleep

Though we are still learning about the far-reaching importance of sleep, we already know that a lack of restorative sleep leads us into a non-sick state prematurely and, like unhealthy eating and a lack of movement, degrades our health.

Sleep is your body’s way of restoring organ function, stabilizing chemical imbalance, refreshing areas of the brain that control mood and behavior, and improving performance. During sleep, your brain replenishes spent nutrients and repairs circuitry, rearranging your experiences much like a computer rearranges data.

Assess your sleep quality

To assess the quality of your sleep at a glance, consider the following questions:

Do you…

  • Wake up tired in the morning?
  • Need a nap in the afternoon?
  • Fall asleep watching television?
  • Find yourself sleepy after lunch?
  • Have difficulty falling asleep?
  • Have difficulty staying asleep?
  • Drink several cups of coffee or energy drinks to stay awake?

If you answered “yes” to many of these questions, don’t worry. You are not alone.

In 2006, an Institute of Medicine report found that between 50 and 70 million people in the U.S. are not getting enough sleep. To help you escape this statistic, here are some quick tips to incorporate into your daily life (reference page 217 of Dr. A’s Habits of Health for a complete guide to revamping your sleep):

  1. Get out of bed when your alarm goes off and limit your in-bed activities to train your mind to always associate sleep with your bed.
  2. Limit your caffeine intake, especially late in the day and within hours of your bedtime.
  3. Decrease stimulation from electronics and other sources of bright light at least 30 minutes prior to trying to fall asleep.
  4. Avoid exercising within two hours of your bed time to help your body’s natural process for releasing the chemicals that induce sleep.
  5. Set a sleep schedule and stick to it all week, including on weekends.